Fork Films Presents
a 2.1 Films / True Enough Production
In Association with Meredith Vieira Productions
a DADA Films Release
A film by Liza Johnson
Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery
& Talia Balsam
OPENS FEBRUARY 2012
RT: 97 min
Distribution and Marketing:
DADA Films/required viewing
New York Publicist:
Los Angeles Publicist:
Back from a military tour of duty, Kelli can’t wait to rejoin her old life in the Rust Belt town she’s always known. She’s ready to experience the feelings of everyday life—the carpet under her bare feet, the smell of her baby’s head.
But slowly, her world comes to feel unfamiliar. Her friends love her but seem preoccupied with trifles. Her children need more focused attention than she can give, and as much as he tries, her husband Mike doesn’t understand what she’s been through. As Kelli’s dislocation ripples through her world, she risks becoming an outsider. When she’s thrown back on her own resources Kelli has to struggle to find a new way forward.
In all my work, I’m interested in the ongoing present, in the atmosphere and texture of everyday life. That is where I’ve set Kelli’s story as she comes home from her military deployment. There are good reasons that the story of the soldier coming home from war is usually marked by traumatic flashback and by heightened psychological crisis—it can be good storytelling, and it also reflects a lot of people’s real experience. But for RETURN, I felt that it was most interesting to narrate the blunt textures of how a crisis feels when it’s played out in the everyday. Kelli feels the joys and comforts of home, but they now include a measure of distance because they also seem so strange. The place she returns to holds within it no more or less sense of purpose than before she left. The fabric of community there, strained by job losses and drugs, is still an American world of consumption, where people are getting by, trying to move up, and, increasingly, trying to numb out.
I’m not sure whether Kelli suffers from a disorder, like the one we associate with posttraumatic stress, but she has definitely become dislocated. In this sense the film much more resembles other films about dislocated women than it does other films about returning soldiers.
Of course, the story of a woman’s return from war is also a new story. The ways that Kelli is expected to channel her emotions is much different from the ways that comparable male protagonists are invited to express their rage. The problems and solutions that are presented by her gender generate a new narrative. As a filmmaker, I’m interested in staying close to her character, close to her point of view. Linda Cardellini is literally in every scene of the film.
RETURN is not a political argument, or at least it is not one in the pro-and-con polemical style that dominates American political conversation. The film doesn’t make moral judgments about war or the homeland—it walks a line that makes those judgments difficult, or at least beside the point. Instead it demands empathetic engagement with a woman in an extreme state of being, grounded in a very particular community, place and time.
My background is in the visual arts, and in the past I have mostly worked with nonprofessional actors. When I wrote this story, I felt strongly that it needed to be approached as a film that relies upon the craft of trained actors. It was great fortune to be able to cast a performer as fearless as Linda Cardellini in the lead, and Michael Shannon also set an immediate tone on set: rigorous, but funny. John Slattery, Talia Balsam, Paul Sparks, and Louisa Krause, among others, rounded out a fictional world that I felt I could believe in.
I’m reluctant to make a lot of truth claims about the nature of soldiers or of women in the military—the women and men that I’ve met have been so varied in their experiences that there aren’t many generalizations that I’m willing to make. Still, when I was writing I felt that it was important to meet as many women as I could who had been in this situation and Linda also sought out women soldiers while she was researching the role. The film doesn’t try to be representative of all soldier’s experience, but it was important to us to render a character who seemed to reflect one singular real possibility, a plausible account
INFLUENCES ON RETURN
I first started thinking about the story for RETURN after talking to a friend who had come back from his deployment in Iraq. He told me about his efforts to stay married, given that he had been in an extreme environment, and his wife had been living in a very normal, banal American manner, even if she had been on pins and needles, worrying about him. He told me that it actually felt irresponsible to his experiences to try to communicate them to someone who had not shared them. This felt to me like a limit case, testing the possibilities of communication and empathy across a gap that the difference in their situation forced open between them.
It also felt surprising to me to hear this kind of war story. Most of the public conversations we have about the U.S wars abroad happen in the register of statistics or policy-making. It’s much more common to hear that 63 people died in a car bomb in another country, or to hear bickering televised debates that are for or against military policy. Where I live now in New York, no one in my social environment is fighting in the military, and few people have family members who are deployed. It felt to me that a story like my friend’s was relatively unknown by the 99% of the country that is not fighting overseas.
So I started researching and writing the screenplay for RETURN. I went to Quantico and talked to a lot of women who had returned from fighting abroad. I met Noah Harlan, one of the film’s producers, whose consultation was especially meaningful to me as I was writing. During the development process I spent a lot of time in my hometown in Ohio, and much of the texture of that world made its way into my script. After I wrote the first draft of the story, I workshopped the script at the Sundance Screenwriters’ and Directors’ labs. A person coming from the visual arts could not ask for a better way to become fluent in the special vernacular of people who write and direct movies. Both labs were a revelation to me in many ways, introducing me to elements of craft and mechanics that don’t come up in a fine arts context, and exposing me to reflexes, impulses, techniques, and ideas that I would never have thought of alone. The film was also supported by Cinemart in Rotterdam, Independent Feature Project’s No Borders Market in New York, and Cinereach. The support of Sundance continued throughout all phases of production. Maybe the most concrete example of this support was when Sundance introduced me to Ben Howe, who joined the project as a producer right as we entered preproduction. His grounding, synergistic contributions to the project were both enormous in all the most practical, on-the-ground ways, and also incredibly fun for me. We’re developing several new projects together going forward.
Michael Shannon was the first person to read the script, and immediately agreed to play the role of Mike. Even a few years ago Mike’s amazing talent was perfectly obvious, and I leapt at the chance to cast him, even though I did not yet know who would play the lead. Michael’s participation challenged me to find an actress who could stand up to him, someone who could give him back the level of craft I knew he would bring to the film. I was thrilled when I met Linda Cardellini—I could tell from her work that she was the kind of warm, relational actor that the role demanded, and I could tell from one meeting that we had the same unsentimental goals for the character and the film. Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee were a pleasure throughout the casting process, and helped me build an amazing ensemble cast. I view RETURN as an actor-driven film, and I think my background working with nonprofessional actors gave me a measure of confidence for this project.. It was great fortune to be able to cast a performer as fearless as Linda in the lead, and Michael also set an immediate tone on set: rigorous, but funny. John Slattery, Talia Balsam, Paul Sparks, and Louisa Krause, among others, rounded out a fictional world I could believe in.
We began looking for financing in the fall of 2008. Eventually I met Abigail Disney, who turned out to be the perfect financing partner for us. She runs a film company, Fork Films, as well as a feminist foundation, and even has a PhD in coming-home-from-war narratives. Her PBS series “Women War and Peace” is airing this month, turning its attention to women on the ground in places where hot wars are being fought. Her confidence in me as a director has been really helpful, and we have discussed working together again in the future.
I’m preparing to direct Mark Poirier’s adaptation of an Alice Munro short story called HATESHIP, FRIENDSHIP, COURTSHIP, LOVESHIP, MARRIAGE. Like RETURN, HATESHIP also has a female protagonist and a giant, meaty role for an actress. The story chronicles the transformation of a domestic worker who starts out as a strange, nervous creature. When two teenage girls trick her into thinking she’s someone’s romantic love interest, she ends up finding an unexpected path to what she really wants. Mark’s script has a beautiful tone, like a lot of Alice Munro’s writing– it’s a strong, forward-moving story that focuses on the small turns of everyday life in a way that makes them astonishing and lovely. I feel close to its thematic concerns and to the miniaturism of its drama. Mark is finishing a rewrite based on my notes. Dylan Sellars is producing, and Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden will cast.
ABOUT THE CAST
LINDA CARDELLINI – “Kelli”
Linda Cardellini shot to fame in the cult classic television show Freaks & Geeks, which launched a generation of actors including Linda, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and writer/director/ producer Judd Apatow. Cardellini’s diverse career has allowed her to work with accomplished filmmakers such as Ang Lee in the Oscar-nominated film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, for which she shared both SAG and Gotham Award nominations for Ensemble Cast. On the small screen, Cardellini starred as Nurse Samantha Taggert in six seasons of NBC’s internationally recognized series, ER, and also co-starred in Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s highly rated CBS mini-series Comanche Moon. Her film roles include playing the notable role of Velma in SCOOBY DOO franchise and more recently in the independent films KILL THE IRISHMAN, SUPER and AMERICAN GUN.
MICHAEL SHANNON – “Mike”
Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon is a renowned performer on both stage and screen with over 30 feature films to his credit. Starting out as a theater actor in Chicago with several theater companies, including the legendary Steppenwolf Theater, Michael has emerged as one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors. He has worked with Sidney Lumet, Sam Mendes, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese.
JOHN SLATTERY – “Bud”
John Slattery stars in Mad Men as Roger Sterling. Slattery was nominated in 2010 for his third Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his role in the critically acclaimed AMC series. He also stars, with Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and Anthony Mackie, in the 2010 drama THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. Slattery appeared on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit Hole and Betrayal and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His off Broadway credits include the original production of Three Days of Rain (LA Drama Critics Award and Drama Desk nominated), among others.
ABOUT THE CREW
LIZA JOHNSON – Writer / Director
Liza Johnson is an artist and filmmaker. Her work has been exhibited internationally in museums, galleries, and film festivals, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Walker Art Center, and the Centre Pompidou, as well as the New York, Berlin, and Rotterdam Film Festivals, among many others. Johnson has recently completed her first feature film, RETURN, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes 2011. She has been a fellow of the DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogramm and the Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ and Directors’ Labs. For RETURN, she has received grants and prizes from the Annenberg Foundation, Cinereach, the LEF Foundation, and the Maryland Filmmakers’ Fellowship. Johnson received the 2010 Rappaport Prize from the DeCordova Museum. She is Professor of Art at Williams College.
NOAH HARLAN – Producer
Noah Harlan is a producer of film, television and new media. He is the co-founder of 2.1 Films, a boutique film and media company. He has produced or co-produced six feature films including APARTMENT #5C (2005 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight), AVANIM (2004 Berlin Film Festival Panorama), PLUM RAIN (2007 Venice Film Festival, Venice Days), and TEHILIM (2007 Cannes Film Festival Competition). He received an Emmy Award in 2008 for his film A CLEARING IN THE FOG on PBS and he has produced media projects for numerous brands and television networks.
BEN HOWE – Producer
Ben Howe is an independent producer based in New York. His films have won international awards, premiered at top festivals, including Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Toronto, and secured international and domestic distribution. Feature credits include Bradley Rust Gray’s THE EXPLODING GIRL, So Yong Kim’s TREELESS MOUNTAIN, David Barker’s DAYLIGHT, and Matt Wolf’s WILD COMBINATION: A PORTRAIT OF ARTHUR RUSSELL. Upcoming projects include Patricia Benoit’s STONES IN THE SUN and Matt Wolf’s TEENAGE.
ANNE ETHERIDGE – Cinematographer
Anne Etheridge is an AFI-trained cinematographer whose documentaries have aired on Showtime, HBO and the Movie Channel, and she has also shot many series for the History Channel and the Food Network. She is the DP of many short films as well as the feature film DUCK, and she has also shot three short films with Liza Johnson.
PAUL ZUCKER – Editor
Paul Zucker’s editorial credits include Harmony Korine’s MISTER LONELY, Braden King’s HERE, Joel Schumacher’s TWELVE, and Scott McGehee’s UNCERTAINTY, among others.
AFFONSO GONCALVES – Additional Editor
Affonso Goncalves’ editorial credits include Todd Haynes’ MILDRED PIERCE, Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE, Tanya Hamilton’s NIGHT CATCHES US, and Ira Sachs’ films MARRIED LIFE, FORTY SHADES OF BLUE, and THE DELTA, among others.
INBAL WEINBERG – Production Designer
Inbal Weinberg’s many credits include Dee Rees’ PARIAH, Max Winkler’s CEREMONY, Jesse Peretz’s MY IDIOT BROTHER, and Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE.
Emma Rayne Lyle
FORK FILMS presents
A 2.1 FILMS / TRUE ENOUGH PRODUCTIONS
In association with MEREDITH VIEIRA PRODUCTIONS
A film by LIZA JOHNSON